His illustrious career was cut short in 1972 when, on the eve of semicentenary of the founding of USSR, Yakovlev published an article attacking Russian nationalism. This led to his exile as an Ambassador to Canada. It was in 1983 in Canada that Yakovlev held a long conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, during which they formulated the ideas of perestroika, or restructuring. Within two months, Yakovlev was back in Moscow, placed at the helm of an economic state-run think tank, and in 1985 (upon Gorbachev becoming general secretary) moved back to his familiar territory of propaganda.
Perestroika, accompanied by glasnost (openness), entailed a gradual introduction of freedom into Russian society and economy. This process allowed for some market-like independence of state companies, such as more flexibility in contracts and even retaining a part of the profit within companies. Glasnost showed the importance of ideology. Once in charge of it, and with daily support of Gorbachev, Yakovlev was able to lift the suppression of political, cultural, and media discussions. Soviet censorship was relaxed, and previously banned works such as Orwell’s 1984, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago became freely available to Russians. It is primarily thanks to Yakovlev’s ideas and his role in implementing them that Gorbachev would be awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize 1990. Meanwhile, Yakovlev’s life has attracted attention of but one historian, Richard Pipes, who published Yakovlev’s only biography in 2015.
Since Khrushchev’s Stalin-denouncing secret speech of 1956, which Yakovlev attended in person, he became doubtful of Marxism and tried to resolve its numerous inconsistencies. Following this speech, Yakovlev asked to study at the Academy of Social Sciences, where he recounts studying “feverishly” and reading “copiously” in search of an answer. Eventually, he realized the Marxist ideology itself was flawed: “It was at the academy, while immersed in studying primary sources, that I became fully conscious of the hollowness and unreality of Marxism-Leninism, its inhumanity and artificiality, its inherent contradictions, its demagogy and fraudulent prognostications,” he wrote in A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. He concluded that the only system viable of being an alternative to Marxism was one based on freedom of choice, private property, and morality which, according to Yakovlev, necessarily accompanies individual freedom.
In his 1993 book The Fate of Marxism in Russia, Yakovlev points out the numerous flaws of Marxism. Its underlying idea of class struggle is incorrect because:
There is a harmony of opposites: cooperation of classes, solidarity of classes. And only because of this does society thrive and develop. Any organization is harmonious cooperation; any division of labor is a mutual complement of diverse and opposite functions.
Marxism wrongly believed human nature may be altered by changed social relations. It is not capitalism which leads to alienation, as Marx predicted, but Marxism, wrote Yakovlev, since the abolition of private property alienates the workers from the fruits of their labor.